A jagged scar runs through a town called Cool, the trail of destruction left by a twister that touched down here a couple of months back. The town itself is little more than a subtle widening of the freeway, a cluster of roadside burger bars and gas stations. The twister atomised one building, leaving its next door neighbour perfectly unscathed. It uprooted hundred-year-old trees and tossed them about like bowling pins. The long highway and flat landscape affords me plenty of time to drink in the whole spectacle as we pass through in the Jeep. Big weather, big landscape. A big vehicle, in the biggest state. Must be Texas.
The Wildcatter Ranch, my destination, continues the theme of ‘big’. It is set in 1,500 acres of prime Lone Star State countryside, complete with 20 horses and 20 miles of trails to ride them over. It’s a working ranch with 35 cows, and you better believe you can shoot stuff – skeet shooting, archery and a lot more, if you ask nicely. A 90-minute drive from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Wildcatter caters to visitors from all over the world, from Spring Breakers to Financial Analysts escaping life’s grind – in fact anyone looking to live out an authentically Texan ‘cowboy’ fantasy – albeit on a vastly more luxurious scale than your average dude ranch. Everything from the decor, to the food, to the activities, is geared toward offering a slice of the ‘real’ Texas, the Jungian archetype of Texas-ness that lives in all our minds. Yee and indeed Haw.
I’ve got my own wood cabin for the week with a porch overlooking the rugged North Texas hill country. But – luckily since I’m not very rugged – there’s a hot tub and an infinity pool too. This would be a great place to go all Henry David Thoreau, cast off my iPhone and write one of those technology-detox, return-to-nature type stories. But I don’t want to do that. I’m here because I’ve realised that despite the supposed interconnectedness of our digital world, despite considering myself an open minded guy, I still spend all of my time with people who basically agree with me. Oh, sure we’ll have spirited debates over bottles of wine about how exactly we should smash the patriarchy, but we all at least agree that the patriarchy is, A – a thing, and B – something that needs smashing. It amounts to tidying up around the edges of ideas we largely agree upon. The Venn diagram of my closest friends’ opinions, versus that of my own is basically a circle.
I want to challenge that. I want to meet and work with people who live an entirely different life and disagree with me on fundamental issues, and then I want to shut the hell up and listen to them. And so I thought – where better for a wet, European leftie to find a conflicting opinion than Graham, Texas smack in the middle of the presidential campaign of Donald J Trump?
“You can never have too many pairs of pliers,” Jay shouts over his shoulder as he clears out the front seat of his pickup truck, ready to give me the grand tour and first insight into life on the ranch. Jay is my wrangler for the day, a full-on, double-denim, ten-gallon hat cowboy. He has a deep tan and the kind of endlessly relaxed attitude you’d have if you’d been doing your dream job for the last decade. “Wire, knife, backpack, cordless drill,” he continues. “In the event of a global catastrophe, this truck is just about the safest place to be.”
We drive to the stables where I meet Billy Joe McCoy (I know it’s a suspiciously perfect name, but I promise it’s real), the ranch’s farrier. Billy is responsible for keeping the horses’ footwear in order and I catch him right in the middle of doing what he does best. Clad in a leather apron, a horse’s foot clamped between his legs, he hammers a nail through a new shoe with a sniper’s accuracy. He’s a garrulous guy, telling me all about his favourite new anvil with noise-cancelling aluminium base, important because, “When you’re whuppin’ on it all day it can make a hell of a racket.” If I came here in search of the essence of Texan-ness, I appear to have hit the mother lode, and it’s not even 10am. Billy goes into a detailed spiel about how hammering a nail into a thousand pound animal’s foot, while gripping said foot between your vulnerable human knees, and not getting eviscerated, is largely based on feel. I guess the horse in question must have been feeling it, because it received its manicure patiently, snorting and farting exuberantly.
Jay returns with Leonard, his hyperactive border collie, and bets me a beer that we’ll find a new born calf on our tour of the hills, so off we go. As we leave, I ask Billy the horse’s name.
“Don’t know, I only look at ‘em from the knees down.” The horse farts again. “I’ll call this one Butthole!” he cackles.
I learn from Jay that much like shoeing horses, spotting pregnant cows is very much a ‘feel’ thing. Apparently, their hindquarters start to move a little funny – Jay refers to it as ‘springing’– that’s when you know they’re ready.
Leonard darts ahead, leaping over fences and scrambling through the brush. This is a dog with a job; his dream job. If that new born calf is out there, the first Jay will know of it is when it stumbles drunkenly over the sun drenched hilltop, followed by a proud, lolloping Leonard. This all seems very casual compared to say, lambing season back home, a highly involved process marked by early starts and constant vigilance – so say my friends back home in Ireland.
“Yep, goats and lambs don’t have a real good will to live,” says Jay. “Cows are hardy, especially ones from Texas.”
My farm-hand apprentice role today is to help Jay separate some calves from the herd to be sold off. The dog springs into action, helping Jay chase them into an enclosed field while I man the gate. Now and then, Leonard seems to get a little intimidated by the 10 tons of pissed-off beef staring back at him, as do I, and both he and I look over to Jay for reassurance. ´Donõt be a weenie, Leonard,ª Jay shouts, “Push ‘em up!” and the dog dives back into the fray with gusto as I slam the gate.
Eyes still on the hill, there’s no new calf today, so Jay owes me a beer. But first there are horses to ride and guns to shoot, as expected of any cowboy adventure – now we’re talking. As we walk off, I sport a John Wayne gait – and I catch a glimpse of something a little out of place about Jay’s boots.
“Don’t make fun of my heart shaped spurs,” he says catching my enquiring glances. He kneels down and adjusts something on his feet – which, on closer inspection, are indeed quite fabulously pink and heart shaped. “I was having ‘em made for a girl for Valentine’s Day, but we never made it to Valentine’s Day, so now I got heart shaped spurs.”
A horse is a lot like a toddler. It’s smart, but not that smart. It can be impulsive, moody, skittish or playful. The difference is that this toddler weighs as much as a car, can run about as fast as one and you’re strapped to it by your feet. So how do you get a toddler to do what it’s told? According to Jay it’s as simple as “Ask, ask, tell”. You ask a horse to move forward by loosening the reigns. If that doesn’t work you ask again more firmly, by making little clucking or kissing noises. This pretty much always does the trick, but if the mule is still unmoved, you give it a little squeeze with your thighs and you’re off. The rest of the controls are so simple that you can imagine Steve Jobs praising the horse for its intuitive user interface. You pull the reigns gently to the left if you want to go left, right means right, and pulling back equals hitting the breaks. Got it? Good.
I certainly get it, or at least I don’t send the damn thing careening over the cliff edge. Considering I haven’t been on a horse since childhood, I’m starting to feel pretty damn rugged after all. The horse will get distracted now and then and pursue it’s own agenda, a particularly delicious looking branch, say, or another horse’s butt that desperately requires sniffing, but Jay just yells over “You’re driving the bus, remember?” and with a firm tug of the reigns we get back on the trail.
Soon we are cresting a hill, overlooking a raging river with the sun high in the sky. Conversation turns to books, and you will be in no way surprised to learn of Jay’s fondness for Cormac McCarthy, plus a whole swathe of similarly masculine authors, chroniclers of the storied south. The great irony of the cowboy genre is that the real cowboys only existed for maybe twenty years and pretty much everything we think we know about them is wrong. They were essentially glorified truck drivers who moved cattle to warmer climes when the seasons changed. “A lot of them were pretty unpleasant characters too”, says Jay, “They were the kinda guys who couldn’t get a job doing much else. Their lives probably sucked.” But that was a long time ago, and it’s not the reality we’re interested in anyway. It’s the idea. An idea that sprouted legs and grew out of the squalid desert to make a home in our books and movies and minds. The legend is bigger than the reality. But that’s enough reflection for now; it’s time to shoot something.
I won’t pretend that a few days in Texas gives me any expertise on the conservative American psyche, but it certainly hammers home how intractable the gun issue is. With the exception of one deranged cab driver (who believed global terrorism would be best solved by “dropping twelve nukes on, let’s say, Afghanistan” or, presumably, any vaguely brown country), I have yet to meet an out-and-out stereotypical redneck, Trump fan.
My corrected impression of Texans is that these are nice, warm, friendly, reasonable people, for whom the idea of not owning a gun is every bit as crazy as owning one seems to us. When they talk about liberals, it isn’t with scorn, so much as bemusement, as though discussing some exotic, little understood species. It makes me think of Jon Stewart and those other media satirists and the futility of mocking people you disagree with. All it does is alienate them further, further entrench them into an ‘us vs them’ mentality, in this case the sneering, east coast elitists vs the honest, hard working southerners. We touch on this – tentatively at first, like poking a sore tooth – on the drive to Jay’s personal shooting range, where I will fire a gun, as part of this Wildcatter experience, for the first time in my life.
“A Japanese general once said the reason they didn’t invade here is because they knew there’d be a loaded pistol behind every tree,” says Jay, as he sets up a target, runs through the safety protocols, hands me some earplugs and a gun. I’m suddenly very aware that I’m alone in the wilderness with an expert marksman and several firearms. So it’s a testament to how much I’ve warmed to my Wildcatter host, that a panic attack is not forthcoming. And yes, If you try to detach from all political context and just see shooting at target as a task, it’s pretty satisfying. But for Texans, it’s not an abstract task; it’s practice. Jay takes my target down afterwards, the one I’ve been shooting, and holds it over his chest. “Pretty good,” he says, “All of those would have been centre mass.”
It’s a jarring moment, one of several I’ve experienced. A day earlier, discussing open-carry laws with another rancher, the guy confessed that they tended to make fun of people who open carried (that is to say, those who wear their gun in plain view rather than concealing it). “Why’s that?” I asked. “Well,” he snorted, “when the bad guys show up, who’s the first one they’re gonna shoot?” The point being, for me this is an abstract exercise in physics, a bit of real life computer gaming. For these guys, it’s a rehearsal, and it’s your civic duty to do it.
Poignantly, it is one hundred years almost to the day since my country, Ireland, staged its own rebellion against the British with guns and bombs. It paved the way for our independence a few short years later. But unlike America, we weren’t left believing we still needed guns in case someone tried to take our freedom away again. I’m still trying to grasp why that narrative runs so deep here. All I know is it’s the kind of thing best discussed over a beer or ten, and Jay still owes me one. So we pile into the end-of- the-world-mobile and drive to the bar.
“I don’t wanna like Trump, but I can’t like Hillary,” he says. We’re about four of those beers in and getting to the crux of things. I’m a pretty staunch conservative but, for example, if my friend or family member said they were gay, I’d say that’s great, you be you. I think people should be allowed marry who they love. This comes from a respected man’s-man, albeit in pink heart-shaped spurs, but I wasn’t going to bring that up again. And it is a common refrain among the Texans I’ve met and pressed on the subject. I’m sure the caricature of the homophobic, bible-bashing, bigoted redneck exists somewhere, I just haven’t met any and I’m actually pretty sure that I won’t here in Graham. It’s wrong to label them as bigots, just because their views don’t synchronise with yours. It’s just that here, other issues override the social ones – basically, guns and taxes. They want to hold on to the former, and pay as little as possible of the latter. The separation between Federal and local governments is key to understanding the tax part. In the UK, even if we don’t like paying taxes, we know they build the roads, pay the police, keep the country functioning. In America, these are all local government issues. So the Fed is just this sinister “other” that raids your pockets to wage strange wars in dusty countries and spy on you. Now add to that the mythology of the gun as a symbol of freedom and self-reliance, a way of protecting your family, something that’s passed on to you when you’re still a little kid, and a picture starts to form.
It’s not that I agree. It’s not that I would ever, for one second, want American gun laws in Europe. But that was never my goal. I just wanted to get to know, understand and like somebody who does. And I like Jay a lot. He’s an honest, funny guy who loves his life here and symbolises everything that is right about Texas and an experience at Wildcatter. He’s aware of the Texan cliches he embodies and isn’t above making fun of them, but he loves them all the same. As he leaves, he refuses to let me pay, and I imagine that even if we’d seen that baby calf that day, he’d have done the same.
I started this journey because I was feeling disconnected in a what is supposedly connected age. In this digitally curated world we are being pushed down ever narrowing corridors of taste. We are social gardeners pruning our friendship group, weeding out dissenting voices from our Twitter feeds with a simple ‘Block’. That’s why now more than ever we need to sit in a room with a living, breathing human being who stridently disagrees with us. Not a faceless avatar to be deleted, not a cartoonish caricature in the latest searing think-piece of some news website. A person.
Beyond the horse riding, the shooting, how to feed a longhorn and just what the hell chicken fried steak is, this is the real lesson I learned at Wildcatter Ranch.
As my cowboy experience draws to a close, I think of that scar running through Cool, that twister trail slashing the town in two. That scar will eventually be repaired, but the ideological split down the centre of America may never be. But what certainly won’t help is each side caricaturing and demonizing the other. They’d be much better off sharing a beer.
Zack was guest of the majestic Wildcatter Ranch, a luxurious, escapist, authentic Texas ranch experience.
GET OUT THERE
1. Don’t leave town without a cowboy hat and some boots – looking the part is very much essential to the experience.
2. When not dining at the Dinner Bell restaurant at Wildcatter Ranch, have a junk food blowout at Whataburger. It’s Texas’s equivalent of L.A.’s In-N-Out.
3. Dump your scruples and shoot something. Whether it’s skeet (clay pigeon) shooting or a pistol range, it’s crucial to the Texas experience.
4. The Cowboys, the local (American) football team, are unavoidable here. You don’t even have to pretend to understand it, but going to a game is a spectacle like nothing else.
5. Texans think a hundred years is a long time. Brits think a hundred miles is a long way. In Texas, ‘a short drive away’ can mean hours. Plan your journeys and airport transfers well.
6. Dallas, the nearest big city, is ‘a short drive away’. Home to one of the largest gay Texan communities, a must visit is Roundup in the gaybourhood of Cedar Springs, where line-dancing is often the order of the evening.